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Cheltenham: Tony McCoy aiming for the golden moment

By Ian Herbert

He wore the exertion on his brow, in the red marks his helmet had left behind.

It's always been like that when AP McCoy has fought his way into this holy grail of winner's enclosures, though yesterday's visit - his 192nd - was different. His smile was broader, his tread lighter, because the win had removed a weight that was beginning to look like it might bury him.

The expectation on him has been building ever since he declared out of nowhere, 34 days ago, that he would be gone inside three months and that this would be the last time at a Festival he rides into the teeth of the wind rolling down from Cleeve Hill, stares at the St Michael and All Angels church in the middle distance, and then fights the punishing hill to the finish, cursing soft ground which has done for so many.

His final Gold Cup today, on his precious Carlingford Lough, is just the half of it.

The Ulster great's last ride this afternoon through the Gloucestershire valley, on Ned Buntline, will be two hours later in a race renamed, for one year only, the AP McCoy Grand Annual Chase.

He looked like a man walking on air when Uxizandre, a horse in which he seemed to set no great store - "he seems to have good and bad days," he'd said - brought him home.

McCoy's penultimate day at the Festival had consigned him to the margins before then and the sequence of the years in which he has left the meeting without a winner - 1995 and 2005 - seemed to be developing a deeply unpleasant significance. His wife Chanelle had spoken of a melancholy in the house when they had set off from home yesterday and it was easy to see why.

There was evidence at every turn of the forces which have made Cheltenham so much less than straightforward for McCoy down the years. None can say they own this course, with its formidable obstacles and topography, but the brilliant horsemanship of Ruby Walsh and the deep pockets of Ireland's Willie Mullins team have left a 19-times champion jockey feeling mortal.

The day was only one race old when Walsh - who has been the Festival's leading rider eight times, McCoy twice - delivered Mullins a sixth winner.

Walsh's face shone as he spoke of that winning novice Vantour's Gold Cup potential in a future to which McCoy does not belong.

Mullins obviously empathises with the pressure McCoy has created for himself by declaring his intention to go? "I think AP is built for that," Mullins said.

"He loves that adrenalin rush. He will thrive on that. He will quite like that and probably ride four winners tomorrow…" Well, it didn't look that way as McCoy's flickering hopes on Regal Encore promptly faded to nothing.

McCoy worries like hell that the landscape he sees ahead - entering Tour de France affiliate amateur races, watching Floyd Mayweather fights, maybe checking out horses for JP McManus - will be impoverished, and weeks like this are a part of the coming to terms.

"I wanted to prepare myself mentally for retiring," he said.

The 40-year-old located the thrill that he will soon lose, as the doubts about Uxizandre's stamina were banished in the Ryanair Chase.

"He ran away with me," McCoy said last night, reflecting on a horse which did not need to be compelled to fight in the manner of Wichita Lineman, Sychronised, Binocular and so many which have gone before, taking him home by five lengths.

"I would love to say it's a relief, but I actually got such a thrill riding him. I was actually thinking I wouldn't mind riding the horse in next year's Champion Chase," he said, only half joking.

"I thought he'd never keep it up, but I was quite happy coming down the hill."

McCoy went on: "Fair play to (trainer) Alan King, he had him spot on.

"It's great for (owners) JP and Noreen (McManus) as much as anything, they're the people I work for. They have been so good to me, so I'm delighted for JP and Noreen and all the family.

"It's nice. Cheltenham is about winning isn't?

"The thrill this horse gave me, I'll miss riding horses like this, the ones that run away with you and jump like stags. It has to happen at some point. It's a bit sad, but we will worry about it this time next year."

He added: "It's going to affect me more next year than this year, because I am still riding. This time next year I am going to miss it - I am missing it already and I haven't stopped yet."

Today he starts again for one last time, though for a real sense of how it will be for him, you need to walk away from the stands which greeted him yesterday, and head out towards the lee of Cleeve Hill to a place where it will be still enough for McCoy to hear the horse under him and the sounds of exertion.

It is in the solitude that he will feel the searing need for a fitting end between himself and this place.

Intensity makes champions and it defines them to the end.

Belfast Telegraph

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